Tina Fey and her longtime creative partner Robert Carlock’s new TV series is a satire about politics and power that takes place in a near-future in which everything is fine.
Ted Danson, fresh off The Good Place, plays Neil Brener, the new mayor of Los Angeles. A former businessman who seemed to achieve great success in spite of his bumbling ways, he runs for—and then wins—the office on a lark.
Like the best of 30 Rock, the universe of Mr. Mayor, which premieres Thursday night on NBC, is real world-adjacent. That’s to say that a pandemic did exist and 2020 was a shitshow. “I was quarantining before it was cool,” Brener brags in a press conference. “Too soon,” warns his doofy new adviser, played by Bobby Moynihan.
We learn through one of those very Fey-esque quick cutaway flashbacks that the former mayor had simply had enough of trying to govern during what is dubbed “Coronafire 2020.”
“The lightning strikes may have caused the earthquake which has shut down many testing centers,” he says in a press conference. “Now we learned overnight the app we’ve been using for distance learning is malware and may have been filming your kids on the toilet.” The last straw: the murder hornets are back, and are actually not hornets but tiny North Korean fighter jets.
So the former mayor retired, Dolly Parton bought everyone vaccines, there was a special election, and now here we are with Brener as mayor. He has no business being there, which everyone knows. Yet everyone in City Hall is more than willing to compromise their morals for the access that staying close to him could provide. Even his most outspoken adversaries happily line up next to him when the opportunity for power presents itself.
Brener is not Trump, per se. He’s a nice guy! He’s played by American Treasure Ted Danson! But he is a Trump “character” in the way that we’ve become used to seeing on TV series over the years: an inept aspiring politico who galvanizes support as a supposed “outsider” and ends up in a position of power; he then becomes a foil for how those who should know better respond to him being there.
It’s interesting that Fey and Carlock are opting to glance at the horrors of the past few years at all. They are staging a series about politics, set in a happily ever after to our current nightmare where everything works out OK. Is there something fresh and layered about a satire that imagines what suffering the foolishness of an inexperienced politician might be like in a post-Trump, post-pandemic world?
There may have been at one point. Yet here I am writing this review while watching the surreal footage of a pro-Trump mob attempting a coup and violently storming the U.S. Capitol, an unshakable and unspeakable reality that makes it a bit hard to suspend disbelief in the Mr. Mayor premiere.
It’s an unfortunately big ask to find the humor in a near-future where yet another ill-equipped businessman bungles governance but it’s OK because it’s Ted Danson. (Brener’s first act as mayor, to ban plastic straws, is made without consulting advisors or experts and motivated purely because he thinks it will make everyone like him. Sound familiar? And when it backfires, he’s shocked...again, familiar?)
Of course, NBC did not foresee the horrific news against which Mr. Mayor is premiering when it scheduled the series premiere; neither did Fey and Carlock when they conceived of it. But for as otherwise serviceable and genuinely funny the series is, the inescapable unease surrounding the premise and today’s news speaks to the limitations of Fey attempting to skewer, comment on, and, in some cases, vent about “woke” politics, power, and cancel culture.
The reason 30 Rock worked as a media satire was because of how hyper-specific the culture of corporate interests and operations was in its world. Fey’s Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy were the smartest people in the room, authorities capable of wielding poison darts at NBC, Comcast, and corporate structures because of their intellect and expertise. They popped a tiny bubble of power with each cynical, smarmy barb, and at the same time bit the hands that fed them. The seeming danger of that is what made it so fun.
What danger, exactly, is there in taking shots at buffoonish politicians and the uselessness of political office in a NBC sitcom in 2021? We’ve received that at an incessant pace over the last four years. And we’ve already delighted in six seasons of that general concept in a different NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation.
That series took the perspective of optimism, insisting that there is still good to be done by those who feel an altruistic civic duty. Mr. Mayor, at least in the first episode, seems to come from a place of exasperation and complacency. It accepts that the circus is in town to stay and there’s no point in fighting it.
It’s not just politics that the show is after. It also targets the entitlement of the rich, the media cycles of outrage, political correctness, and, as its most specific target, Los Angeles. It attempts to find comedy in our frustration—something Veep did better—but lacks the edge it needs to really bolster its take on wokeness. It rarely digs deeper than: Isn’t it fun to see Ted Danson driven to his wit’s end over these things?
There are echoes in Mr. Mayor of one of the most dated elements of the comedy of 30 Rock: It complained about the system from the perspective of people already on the inside, and who are benefitting from it. That was the case with the fictional Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, as well as Tina Fey, the creative force behind it.
In Mr. Mayor, no one is happy with the state of things: of Los Angeles, of governance, of an infrastructure that allowed Mayor Brener, former businessman, to be elected. But is exploring our disappointment in that infrastructure as valuable as a more timely mission of attempting to disrupt it? More, does a Tina Fey NBC sitcom even have any sort of imperative towards the latter?
The plastic straw ban, for example, arrives in mirror plots. It’s Brenan’s first act as mayor, but it’s also the platform on which his teenage daughter is running for class president at her all-girls’ high school. For her, the ban is about toppling the patriarchy more than saving the environment. She supports it not just to save the sea turtles, but “because drinking through the straw is a phallic lie. Girls have mouths and it’s time for us to use them.”
The underlying joke throughout the episode is how we’ve allowed cultural sensitivities to become so mainstream that maybe it’s not Brener who's inept, but the society that screams at him from all sides. Something that seemed, to him, like an act nobody could dispute the benefit of turns out to be controversial when there are so many voices all given equal validation.
Environmentalists, surprisingly, don’t all support it. Apparently choking on plastic straws is one way to combat the exploding coyote population. And Holly Hunter’s city council member Arpi Meskimen, who is an avowed liberal, sees opportunity to make Brenner’s life hell by giving voice to the disabled community that relies on bendable plastic straws because they have limited use of their hands.
After streaming services removed episodes of 30 Rock that featured commentary on blackface, Fey’s track record making comedy about diversity, race, and so-called “woke” issues was called into question. Her toughest critics will likely cringe through these scenes, as well as one joke about an ethnically ambiguous student’s multi-hyphenated last name. That’s not to say that she was wrong to include those jokes in Mr. Mayor. But there is going to be a harsh spotlight on them.
Parts of Thursday’s premiere seem to be riffing on those various knee-jerk reactions when it comes to modern political correctness. After protesters put him on blast for the now-controversial plastic straw ban, Brenner vents to his advisor, “I don’t like being told I’m problematic, Tommy.”
“Nobody does, but cancellation comes for us all. Mine was a joke tweet about how I wanted Drake to murder my vagina,” Tommy replies.
“I avoided all the mines in the minefield and I’m still getting crucified. Am I allowed to say crucified?” Brenner asks. “Of course,” Tommy says. “It was a different time 10 minutes ago.”
Later, Hunter’s character jokes about how she’s going to mine his past for material that will get him canceled, skewering the digital sleuthing that’s become common practice any time a person comes into the public sphere in 2020, now 2021. “Did you post the black square on Instagram?” she asks. “Either way, how dare you?”
A satire like this needs a finer razor edge. I’m not sure it’s saying anything about the maladies of modern society; it’s just griping that they exist. As it stands, it seems like a few comedy writers’ giant “oy vey…” about the ways culture has progressed in recent years. In some respects, it’s about how hard it is to be a public figure. In others, it’s about how everything is ridiculous, so how do we operate within that system? Then there’s just the amusement of Danson being among the best TV comedy actors there may have ever been. He’s great in this!
It’s wild to think that Mr. Mayor is actually a descendant of a once-planned 30 Rock spinoff that would have centered around Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy realizing he had conquered all he set out to do in the corporate world and deciding to run for mayor of New York. Dear God, imagine if we had gotten that—the man who played Trump on SNL, now in a series about a politician who wants the ego and attention of holding office.
We should all be grateful that a Ted Danson Mr. Mayor is what we got instead. Outside of that, we’re still waiting for it to prove that it’s worth a weekly re-election.